Ezra Barnes

Leaving the Nest

Review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Playhouse on Park

Randle Patrick McMurphy is a famed character—from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) to the play Dale Wasserman made from the novel a year later, to the film by Miloš Forman, using Bo Goldman’s screenplay, the role for which Jack Nicholson won a Best Actor Oscar in 1975. Kesey and Wasserman were free spirits, anti-authoritarian, extra-institutional, and they fashioned McMurphy to be a protean Everyman type—boisterous, crude, full of the life principle. He’s a charmer and not nearly as clever as he’d like to be, naïve in ways that prove to be his Achilles’ heel.

It’s as if we’ve always known McMurphy and have never stopped wishing him well. But, these days, a certain tangled air encircles him. The life principle, as conceived in the book-play-film, is decidedly male, and it’s set against the ball-busting, castrating, emasculating power wielded by a society that—in the name of motherhood, religion, manners, and being nice—suppresses the raw “barbaric yawp” that American heroes so often sound. These days, politesse is all but dead, and many forms of misogyny, some subtle and some overt, have been hash-tagged if not debagged. Cuckoo’s Nest, now, could even seem a “backlash,” or at least a cautionary tale about how badly “real men” fare beneath the thumb of a culture determined to outlaw their badass antics.

Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), foreground; Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Ruckley (Ben McLauglin), background; in Playhouse on Park’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (photos by Curt Henderson)

Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), foreground; Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Ruckley (Ben McLauglin), background; in Playhouse on Park’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (photos by Curt Henderson)

If you don’t know the story: there is an asylum where a group of male inmates live out their days medicated and playing cards and watching TV and taking recreation according to a prescribed schedule. Many elements of life in the common space are by agreement, ostensibly, but all is overseen by Nurse Ratched, a figure of authority who treats the patients as children trying to get away with something. They can’t be trusted and they don’t trust themselves, since most suffer from extreme social anxieties. One or two “chronic” patients are too debilitated to take part in common functions, most notably “The Chief,” a very large Native American who appears to be catatonic, but in fact is a source of stream-of-consciousness commentary about the ward.

Into this world of settled routine comes McMurphy, a repeat-offender sent over from prison for an intervention into his violent and anti-social tendencies. To him, the asylum beats lock-up and he’s soon engaging the inmates in card games and wagers to leech their government checks away. He is an unregenerate hustler and the anathema of Nurse Ratched who resents how easily McMurphy’s charm sways her patients and even Dr. Spivey, the doctor assigned to the ward who previously agreed with her if only to avoid confrontation.

As revived at Playhouse on Park, directed by Ezra Barnes, whose The Diary of Anne Frank there was a notable success last season, Cuckoo’s Nest takes too long to click and never soars. The play picks up momentum as it goes, with the first half weighed down with the task of introducing characters and the elements of life in the asylum. The second half comes more fully into its own as the camaraderie among the inmates of the asylum catches fire and makes their interplay more interesting, while the battle of wills between Ratched and McMurphy becomes more pronounced.

The principle characters are particularly well cast. As McMurphy, Wayne Willinger has plenty of swagger and charm, and busy eyebrows reminiscent of Nicholson. Willinger never lets us forget—for all the heroizing of his fellow inmates—that McMurphy is just an average guy, mostly flying by the seat of his pants. His main delight is going against the rules simply because they are rules. The others, against whatever comfort they find in routine, eventually start to see his point, but it does take a while. The Act One closer is the first breath of fresh air: a collectively imagined baseball game on a shut-off TV.

As Big Nurse Ratched, Patricia Randell is perfect. Randell looks a motherly figure and acts like a school principal: no-nonsense, and convinced of the value of the particular brand of socialization she wields. Her “all right, boys,” at one point, risks a certain devilry. We might suspect that, in other circumstances, she might be a bit more indulgent toward McMurphy, but his cock-of-the-walk routine has to be squelched. Of course, there will be violence and a sacrificial victim.

Santos, in the role of Chief Bromden, plays up the outward debility of the character. The Chief, for all his size and latent power, sees himself as dwarfed by the system that has robbed his tribe of all status and respect. His voice carries a gravitas that does much for the allegory Kesey and Wasserman intended. This isn’t ever meant to be simply a therapeutic institution but rather a metaphor for how we self-medicate ourselves into complacency for the sake of a quiet life without complications. All the inmates are afraid of life “out there,” and all but a few, including the Chief and McMurphy, are free to leave if they wish. But they don’t.

Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine), Candy Starr (Athena Reddy), Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala), Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger)

Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine), Candy Starr (Athena Reddy), Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala), Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger)

Part of the problem here is with the patients. They risk becoming tics of behavioral oddity, and to make them characters would take more time than the play can afford. The neuroses from which they suffer fall away rather quickly and some—most notably Harding (Adam Kee)—seem perfectly fine from the start. The era when one sought out psychiatric—or medical—intervention for homosexuality is, thankfully, long gone, our current vice president notwithstanding. Wasserman, who died in 2008 at 94, unfortunately never updated the play for the twenty-first century.

Barnes uses the playing space well, with the action moving around the set convincingly, including circled discussions, card games, fights, a party, and an improvised basketball game. The use of see-through walls in David Lewis’ set works very well and suggests how porous this asylum is. Lighting, which the script can be very definite about, is used to good effect by Aaron Hochheiser.

Whatever the intentions of the revival, the play comes across as a period piece, a fight for the souls of males of the Vietnam era. However, the climax—with the Chief’s big moment—takes on more potency today as a gesture against the white man’s world and its clinical devaluation of persons of color. In that, the play is of its time but also ahead of its time.

Chief Bromden (Santos)

Chief Bromden (Santos)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Ezra Barnes

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Costume Designer: Michele Sansone; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Original Music & Sound Designer: Lucas Clopton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen OConnor; E. John McGarvey for Les Cheveux Salon

Cast: Katya Collazo; Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr.; Harrison Greene; Justin Henry; Adam Kee; Rick Malone; Ben McLaughlin; Alex Rafala; John Ramaine; Patricia Randell; Athena Reddy; Santos; David Sirois; Lance Williams; Wayne Willinger

Playhouse on Park
October 31-November 18, 2018

Prisoners of Hate and Hope

Review of The Diary of Anne Frank, Playhouse on Park

The Diary of Anne Frank possesses intrinsic drama: a Jewish family—father, mother, two daughters—together with the family of the father’s colleague, and, later, the dentist of an acquaintance, hiding for their lives during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They have no illusions about the direness of the situation, but at the same time they maintain a hope for eventual restitution that, even though we know the outcome, we can almost share in with them.

Seated: Otto Frank (Frank van Putten), Mr. Dussel (Jonathan D. Mesisca); standing, l to r: Edith Frank (Joni Weisfeld), Peter Van Daan (Alex Rafala), Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), Mrs. Van Daan (Lisa Bostnar), Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier), Margot Frank (Ruthy Froch) (photo credit: Curt Henderson)

Seated: Otto Frank (Frank van Putten), Mr. Dussel (Jonathan D. Mesisca); standing, l to r: Edith Frank (Joni Weisfeld), Peter Van Daan (Alex Rafala), Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), Mrs. Van Daan (Lisa Bostnar), Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier), Margot Frank (Ruthy Froch) (photo credit: Curt Henderson)

The production at Playhouse on Park uses the Wendy Kesselman adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett derived from Anne Frank’s world famous diary. Directed by Ezra Barnes with costumes by Kate Bunce and scenic design by David Lewis, the show has appealing intimacy and quiet power.

The context we know, but if we don’t, the boisterous song in German that opens the show, about hunting and killing Jews, tells us all we need to know. Occasionally we hear Hitler on the radio, or references to the sequence of events: Jews forced to wear the gold star of David, being banned from all public activities, being forced into labor camps and losing all status except as expendable slaves of a system that intends the annihilation of a subjected people. People who, until Hitler came to power, were citizens enjoying all the privileges of a free state.

For all the drama and horror of the historical circumstances, the story Anne (Isabelle Barbier) sets down in her journals is an emblematic domestic drama. How do people get along in straightened circumstances? How does a young girl become a young woman, with only one boy around as possible object of romantic longing? How do parents make the best of bad things for their children? How do ordinary people live daily with extraordinary hardship? The little collective on stage before us are in the unique position of refugees who have not fled the land of persecution. Unable to emigrate, they elect to live in the cracks, as it were, in hopes that the Nazis will be defeated and Holland liberated in a short time. They are prisoners of hate and prisoners of hope.

The show grabs and holds the attention as though we are voyeurs looking on at how survival works. It’s remarkable the degree to which movement and interaction in the cramped space feels completely natural and believable. During the intermission, the cast remains on stage, in character, going about their personal activities in the annex in which the Franks, the Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel hid successfully for over two years.

Key to what makes this uneasy unit unique is the presence of Anne. We get the impression that she’s long been a kind of heroine waiting for her story to begin. She’s precocious, imaginative, the kind of motor-mouth that often leaves her more reticent father, mother and sister looking on in stricken silence. Anne always has something to say. Forced to be more circumspect in the presence of outsiders, she takes to her diary as a mission to unburden herself and to record life as she sees it. At one point, she insists she can’t imagine anyone reading her words; later, after an announcement on the radio suggests how important personal accounts will be after the war—when so many silenced people will need to be voiced—she understands that she is documenting the drama of survival, a document that may outlast her and her family and friends.

Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier)

Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier)

Isabelle Babier plays Anne forthrightly and winningly, with many a direct appeal to the audience that melts any misgivings about her character. She’s a show-off and tends to feel superior but she’s also a girl with a lot on her mind. Barbier has an easy confessional manner, and an endearing way of twisting her fingers while she tries to find the wording that will seem best to her many imagined listeners.

And listening is an important factor. As a scribe, Anne is always listening to what the others say, watching what they do. Fights between the Van Daans take place on a stage within the stage, as it were. But even more tellingly, the ears and eyes of the enemy are to be feared and are always assumed. Sound and silence, and personal space, have special status in this play, creating a world of limitation that, while wearying, is never boring.

Everyone in the cast is so believable as to seem born to their parts. As Mr. Otto Frank, Frank Van Putten achieves and maintains the unflappable tone of a father as successful businessman and his family’s dependable rock. He’s not the kind to despair or go under due to weakness of character. The other male adults in hiding, Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) and Mr. Dussel (Jonathan Messica) are shown to be weak in their own ways, apt to be querulous and selfish.

As the wives, Mrs. Edith Frank and Mrs. Van Daan, Joni Weisfeld and Lisa Bostnar help to establish the contrast between the families: Mrs. Frank has no sense of life or purpose apart from her family, though she is resented by Anne for favoring the “perfect” (and perfectly self-effacing) Margot (Ruthy Froch); Mrs. Van Daan never misses an opportunity to express bitterness toward her husband, who sometimes reacts in anger, but when he is put upon by Mrs. Frank for stealing bread, she supports him. Their son, Peter (Alex Rafala) is the only character besides Anne who can be said to grow and the romantic interest of the play comes from seeing how Anne plays a part in that. The courtship—as the adults see it—comes as a welcome little drama to divert them from their lack of prospects.

Objects have special status as well. A Hanukah celebrated with gifts from Anne to each of her fellow inmates says something about her attitude toward each; a fur coat becomes an emblem of personal worth and sentimental attachment but also a means to an end. The action is mostly through Anne’s eyes but the other characters—including Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies and Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler, the two essential helpers who provide the necessities for a life lived in hiding—have enough stature to provide the context of familiarity and resentment and sympathy and love that sustains Anne’s ultimately misplaced faith in humanity.

Producing the show at any time is an act of historical testimony, but these days it can be considered a public service announcement. Playhouse on Park has revived a touching reminder that is also a dire warning.

 

The Diary of Anne Frank
By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Ezra Barnes

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor, Judi Manfre; Stage Manager: Corin Killins

Cast: Isabelle Barbier, Lisa Bostner, Michael Enright, Ruthy Froch, Jonathan D. Mesisca, Frank van Putten, Alex Rafala, Allen Lewis Rickman, Elizabeth Simmons, Joni Weisfeld

Playhouse on Park
October 25-November 19, 2017 

The Ghost of a Chance

Review of I Hate Hamlet at Playhouse on Park

Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, directed by Vince Tycer at Playhouse on Park, reads like an amiable sit-com where the hero, an actor, could easily be a Bob Denver or Michael J. Fox type who finds himself having to undergo “growth”—for the sake of laughs and, ultimately, some theatrical values.

Andrew (Dan Whelton) is a successful TV actor who has recently—all the furniture still has sheets on it—moved into a Tudor-looking apartment in New York, formerly owned by John Barrymore, one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of his era. This isn’t a selling point for Andrew, but is for his girlfriend Deirdre, a budding actress who adores the Bard. So there you have the two strains of Rudnick’s universe: the Bardolators vs. those who are sick of having Shakespeare rammed down their throats. In fact, if the play were called “I’m Sick of Shakespeare” it might have more to offer: at least there would be the hope that the script would do take-offs on the robustious over-acting and posturing that oftentimes goes by the name of “Shakespearean acting.” But that’s not the target here. Rather, an impromptu séance led by Andrew’s real estate agent, Felicia (Julia Hochner) and including his theatrical agent Lillian (Ruth Neaveill) leads to an appearance—at first for Andrew’s eyes only—of the ghost of Barrymore himself (played with great ease of manner and an air of grand noblesse oblige by Ezra Barnes, in a becoming “suit of solemn black,” with tights, cape and codpiece, by Soule Golden).

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore)

Barrymore has returned from the dead, you see, tasked with the duty of making Andrew accept and, if possible, shine in the role of Hamlet in the park. But that doesn’t mean this is a primer in how to act Hamlet—Barrymore’s only real advice on that score is Hamlet’s advice to the players, pretty much stolen verbatim—or even on how to use Hamlet as a foil for the actor’s own agenda. Andrew doesn’t really have one of those, except to vacillate like a whiny Hamlet and wish his virginal fiancée would consent to making the beast with two backs. One of the more humorous moments on that score is when he finds out, to his surprise, that the surest way to fan her flame is to fume with “get thee to a nunnery.”

Dan Whelton (Andrew), Susan Slotoroff (Deirdre), David Lanson (Gary)

Dan Whelton (Andrew), Susan Slotoroff (Deirdre), David Lanson (Gary)

There’s also tame fun at the expense of an L.A. agent who can’t wait to get Andrew away from the footlights and back before the television cameras—David Lanson plays Gary as an earnest guy for whom the point of show biz is making the most money from the biggest show. There’s not much to be gained, except maybe some grudging respect from drama critics, by humbling oneself live each night as Hamlet outdoors. Maybe when Rudnick’s play opened, back in 1991, L.A. types were fresher as a concept, but as it stands now, the show-biz part of the show is a bit like watching a re-run to catch someone’s early work.

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Ruth Neaveill (Lillian)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Ruth Neaveill (Lillian)

So, in lieu of big laughs at the expense of Shakespearean rhetoric or of show-biz neurotics, the high point of the show is a touching moment of middle-aged amour. Lillian, you see, once had a fling with the oft-flinging, iamb-slinging Barrymore and the scene in which their old times hover around them again as a possible present—Barrymore is a substantial ghost and can control who sees him and who doesn’t—is tinged with sweet sincerity. Much more so, on that score, than the amorous jousting of Andrew and Deirdre, even if she does melt once he does his duty—and takes his lumps—trying to talk the talk of the melancholy Dane. And the sword-fight between Barrymore and Andrew is pretty good too.

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Dan Whelton (Andrew)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Dan Whelton (Andrew)

Then there’s the play’s other high point: Whelton’s growth moment. It’s not that Andrew becomes a Hamlet worthy of Barrymore, nor probably even a Hamlet worthy of Central Park, but that he comes to realize the value of live performance. His speech about seeing the Bard’s words connect with a kid, bored and uneasy a moment before, who suddenly cares whether or not the Prince will decide to be or not, ropes in all us easy marks, ready to be reassured about the meaning and prestige of live theater over the more commercial variety commandeered by clips and edits. Whatever Andrew’s merits as actor (or lover), we see that at least he’s learning what it means to have presence.

And if you should be present for I Hate Hamlet, you’ll find a game cast that earns its applause in this easy-going play.

 

I Hate Hamlet
By Paul Rudnick
Directed by Vince Tycer

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Properties Master: Pamela Lang; Photos: Rich Wagner

Cast: Ezra Barnes, Julia Hochner, David Lanson, Ruth Neaveill, Susan Slotoroff, Dan Whelton

Playhouse on Park
February 24-March 13, 2016